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Modernize Your Car’s Audio System with a New Head Unit

DIY, Interior  /   /  By Gary Lieber

For most motorists, a high-quality car stereo is essential to an enjoyable driving experience. But if you own a vehicle that’s more than about five years old, your stereo probably doesn’t have the latest desirable features—like a reliable Bluetooth connection and hands-free controls. There’s an easy and affordable fix: update the audio head unit.

Head-Unit Features to Consider

Many older factory-supplied stereos only offer AM/FM reception and a way to play a CD or cassette. Some might offer a simple audio input to connect an MP3 player or smartphone—but that’s usually about it.

An upgrade to a modern head unit will add Apple Carplay or Android Auto to your system.

An upgrade to a modern head unit will add Apple Carplay or Android Auto to your system.

Depending on your budget, an upgrade to a new head unit will likely add a number of these features to your car:

  • Apple Carplay or Android Auto (to allow a smartphone-like interface on the dashboard)
  • Hands-free phone operation
  • GPS navigation
  • USB inputs
  • Storage of music on the unit’s hard drive
  • External-amplifier outputs
  • Backup-camera inputs
  • Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Internet access
  • Satellite and HD radio capability
  • DVD or Blue-ray video

Making Sure the Head Unit Fits

Today’s factory car stereos come in a variety of shapes and configurations. For most older cars, the head unit will be set to a global standard known as DIN. The majority of these units are either a single-DIN size (180mm by 50 mm) or a double-DIN size (180mm long by 100mm high).

Upgraded head units use either a single- or double-DIN adapter.

Upgraded head units use either a single- or double-DIN adapter.

There are installation kits available that are custom for nearly every make and model of car or truck. The kits, which include the mounting hardware and bezels found in your vehicle, will enable the head unit to precisely match the look of your vehicle’s dashboard.

Take note: The DIN standard does not specify the depth of the head-unit body, so check the fitment guide of the head unit before making a purchase. Another bad surprise—only if you’re not careful to avoid it—is discovering that the trim bezel in your mounting kit doesn’t fit or is the wrong color or texture.

Wiring Your Upgraded Head Unit

Wiring adapters are a key part of a head-unit upgrade.

Wiring adapters are a key part of a head-unit upgrade.

Wiring your upgraded head unit can be the most challenging part of the installation. Fortunately, there are wiring-harness adapters designed specifically for your vehicle and head unit. They are designed so that the installation is mostly a matter of plug-and-play.

If your vehicle has stereo controls on the steering wheel, you will want to continue using those controls. Before finalizing your selection of a new head unit, make sure that you can also purchase an adapter specifically designed to translate commands from your steering-wheel controls.

If a wiring harness adapter is not available for your preferred head unit, then you might consider doing your own wiring—which is straightforward for those who are comfortable with basic wiring. The function of each wire can usually be found on a sticker on your existing radio. The job is to match each wire to the corresponding wire on the upgraded unit.

It’s fairly common that budget-oriented equipment might not be fully compatible with advanced features like steering-wheel controls or the vehicle’s built-in antenna. If maintaining those features is essential—or if you have your heart set on a particular head unit but there’s no adapter—you should consider working with a professional car-audio installer.

That said, in most cases, DIY head-unit installations are hassle-free. In a matter of a few hours, your car stereo will be upgraded for the 21st century. See the wide selection of affordable car-audio head units available on eBay Motors.

About the Author

Gary Lieber is a regular contributor to the eBay Motors Blog, Clean Fleet Reports, MyRideIsMe.com, and PluginCars.com. He likes to modify his cars by adding features that are unique to the marque. His Porsche 911 is a multiple Concours winner including Top 911 at Porsche Parade in 2005 and 2015. His Volkswagen GTI has been tricked out with engine management upgrades and style enhancements not commonly available on this side of the pond.

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